The world population of Asian elephant
has sunk dramatically this century, so that only 30-40,000 animals are left in
the wild. The Asian elephant is therefore in a far more perilous state than its
African cousin. The continuing threats to its survival are still the two key
factors of (1) poaching, and (2) habitat destruction by human encroachment. Many
elephant populations across the Asian range are so small that survival is very
doubtful. The most important populations are therefore those of substantial size
where there is a chance to maintain successful breeding and population numbers.
The area with the largest populations anywhere in the world is in south-west
India where, in a chain of national parks and reserves, and intervening areas,
anything from 6,000-10,000 wild elephant are believed to live - perhaps a
quarter of the world population.
A long-term study of the elephants in this area, concentrating especially on the
Mudumalai Sanctuary, has been undertaken by Dr R Sukumar and his colleagues from
the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. It is essential to monitor the
numbers of animals, the population structure (numbers of males, females and
young), and the migration routes of the animals, to assess the health of the
population and plan conservation measures. In some areas, the sex ratio (number
of adult males: females) has dropped to 1:10 or worse as a result of poaching
for males, which alone bear the ivory. It is believed that in the area of
Nagarhole National Park, effective management has reduced poaching pressure and
allowed the animals to retain a more natural and healthy population structure.
The SES were invited by Dr Sukumar to assist with an assessment of the Nagarhole
population. Dr Sukumar is both Director of the Asian Elephant Conservation
Centre within the Indian Institute of Science, and also Chairman of the Asian
Elephant Specialist Group of IUCN (The International Union for the Conservation
of Nature). Our work was undertaken under the auspices of these bodies and also
the more local Nilgiri Conservation Foundation.
Nearly 1400 elephant were seen in 174 sightings. Preliminary analysis of the
data indicates a ratio of adult males to female much higher than in most areas
of India. The high number of calves and young animals testifies to the health of
this population, which must therefore be regarded as a key area for elephant
A photographic record of the elephant study has been compiled and the Scientific
Exploration Society is planning further projects in India with Dr Sukumar, as
well as in Western Nepal.